Nigerian priests heed call to ministry in Canada

By  Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, Catholic Register Special
  • October 7, 2010
Fr. Stan Chu Ilo“God is good” is a traditional Nigerian greeting I use often in my parish in Peterborough, Ont. When I say this, parishioners have learned to respond, “All the Time” and then I repeat, “All the time,” and then people reply, “God is Good,” and I conclude, “And that is God’s nature,” and the people respond, “Wau!”

People often ask me the origin of this greeting and I tell them it is common in many churches in sub-Saharan Africa. I heard this greeting for the first time when I was on a charitable mission to the Shilanga Women Co-Operative Group in the Kibera slums in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

This co-op group is comprised of 37 HIV-positive widows who lost their husbands to AIDS. Many of the women were left to raise five or more children as single mothers. Rather than live in self-pity, however, these women pooled their resources and embarked on economic ventures and skills acquisition enterprises. When I visited them in June 2007, I was concerned about how I could comfort them and what message I could bring to lift their spirits. Surprisingly, it was they who taught me something that has remained with me.

When the women gathered to meet me, the leader Rose Atieno began in a loud voice: “God is good” and the ladies all echoed with joy, “All the time.” I was stunned. These ladies understood more than me that the goodness of God was not diminished by their HIV status, that God’s goodness is not simply determined by our having everything that we need or by our economic, social and political standing in life. They were so hopeful and joyful, so generous and gracious, that encountering them led me to rethink what life means and how God’s goodness is to be understood.

Now when I use this greeting in my parish it seems to awaken the spiritual imagination of so many, especially the children when I do my visits of our Catholic schools. Some of the kids even change the greeting to say of themselves, “I am Good… all the time” and my response is, “I will find out from your mom or dad if it is so.”

Many Canadian parishes, schools and hospitals that are served by Nigerian priests will notice that these faith-filled men are upbeat, energetic, and enthusiastic. These are spiritual qualities assimilated from a faith that is alive in Nigeria and in the African continent. The faith we have in Africa is the kind shown by the Kenyan widows. It is a faith that led the women to sing enthusiastically that God is good even though they were struggling with HIV and, following the death of their husbands, facing the challenge of raising  children without any means of livelihood.

I think this message of hope and joy is what many Nigerian priests bring to Canada. It is a vocation of preaching the Good News of hope in the midst of uncertainty, announcing the power of faith amidst the lure of scientific determinism or secular culture, and building communities of faith ennobled by lively liturgies and animated by prophetic witnessing to the grace of caritas.

The fact that there are more than 30 Nigerian priests and 60 African priests ministering in Canada today is proof of the successful missionary work carried out by North Americans and Europeans in Africa between 1885-1970. By the early 1970s most of the Western missionaries had left Africa and Africans took charge of their local churches. The successful expansion of Christianity in Africa, especially in the Catholic Church, is perhaps the greatest miracle in recent Christian history.

In his 1994 Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, released in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Pope John Paul II wrote this about Africa: “Indeed, this continent is today experiencing what we call a sign of the times, an acceptable time, a day of salvation. It seems that the ‘hour of Africa’ has come, a favourable time.” The Pope’s expressions indicated his conviction that the Church in Africa had come of age.  

According to a recent statistical overview of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians and their activities, the Christian population in Africa has passed 447 million from 10 million in 1910. Between 1990 and 2000 the Catholic population in Africa increased by a phenomenal 6,708 per cent, from 1.9 million to 130 million. Christianity is growing annually in Africa by 3.5 per cent and many studies say sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing the fastest church growth of any region in the world.

With an estimated 28 million Catholics, Nigeria has the greatest Catholic population in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria is also home to the greatest Anglican population outside of the United Kingdom. While there is a frightening drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in North America, religious vocations are booming in Nigeria.

Bigard Memorial Seminary in Eastern Nigeria is the largest Catholic seminary in the world with a enrolment of 1,100. But despite a healthy rate of vocations, there is no surplus of priests in Africa because Africans are being baptized more rapidly than priests are being ordained. The ratio of priests to laity in Africa is about 1 to 5,000, meaning that parishes and churches need more priests than Africa presently supplies. However, the Nigerian church, like many other churches in Africa, continues to share its rich harvest of vocations with the rest of the Catholic world.

Many Nigerian priests in Canada serve with joy and have embraced Canada (except the cold) just as Canadians have embraced them.

Indeed, Nigeria’s missionary service in Canada is a sign of true catholicity, wherein the vision of John in the Book of Revelation is being fulfilled — people from every language and nation, ethnic and social class gather around the altar of the Lord. African missionaries to Canada also serve another dimension. When African priests share the fruits of their faith they help meet the needs of the Canadian Church as it copes with a decrease in vocations.

African Catholics, on the other hand, are hoping that Canadian churches will support Catholic churches in Africa through mission appeals to help fund the seminary training of African priests. They also pray that Canadians  contribute to poverty eradication so African Catholics can be the agents of development in Africa. There could also be Canadian contributions to help  finance African Catholic women through micro-credit and women co-operatives similar to the Shilanga Women in Kenya, and through educational exchanges between Catholic school boards in Africa and those in Canada.

The mission exchange between the global South and the global North should be conceived as a mutually beneficial relationship between two equals. Both churches have needs and can support each other in the spirit of friendship, solidarity, communion and catholicity.

(Fr. Stan Chu Ilo was recently appointed Assistant Professor of Religion and Education at the Faculty of Theology, University of St Michael’s College, Toronto. He authored the forthcoming book, Aid and Development in Africa and the Role of Churches and Christian Charities in Africa’s Social Context.)

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